Six southern African countries were added to the UK’s travel red list on Friday, after the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 – flagged by health experts as highly permeable and effective in eliciting the body’s immune response – was first found in South Africa. This week.
Countries that have now been added to the UK Red List include South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, as well as Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), both of which are landlocked within South Africa.
Flights from these countries will be temporarily suspended from Friday afternoon.
However, as per the announced protocol, travelers arriving in the UK on Friday from any of the six southern African countries will have to be quarantined for 10 days in a government-approved hotel.
The latest version is the most heavily mutated version ever discovered. First identified in South Africa earlier this week, the strain has already spread to neighboring countries, including Botswana, where it has reportedly been detected in fully vaccinated people.
The new variant has been flagged by scientists at an alarmingly high number of spike mutations that could make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase its transmission potential and lead to more severe COVID-19 symptoms. Is.
The World Health Organization said on Thursday it was closely monitoring the new variant, and would hold a “special meeting” to discuss whether this highly mutated strain would become a form of interest or a type of concern.
“SA is investigating a new version. More data is needed but we are taking precautions now. From tomorrow afternoon (Friday) six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, And UK travelers will have to quarantine,” the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, tweeted on Thursday.
Javid said that while more data is needed, the UK is taking this step as a precaution.
The UK Health Protection Agency has designated version B.184.108.40.2069 as a new ‘Version Under Investigation’.
The move comes weeks after South Africa and the UK restarted following hectic lobbying by the South African government.
In October, South Africa remained on the UK government’s Red List after it introduced a revised system of travel restrictions and requirements that differentiated between vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers.
The UK is one of the biggest contributors to the tourism sector in South Africa.
During an urgently convened media conference on Thursday, South African Health Minister Joe Fahla expressed concern about a rapid increase in COVID-19 infections over the past week, especially in the economic center of Gauteng province.
Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP), told a media briefing that the new variant was also detected in neighboring Botswana and Hong Kong.
So far 59 confirmed cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
“This variant has a very high number of mutations, which is related to its presumed immune evasion and transmission,” said de Oliveira, “early signs from clinical laboratories suggest that the variant has spread rapidly in Gauteng province and It can also be. Present in most of the other eight provinces of South Africa.”
“We can make some predictions about the effect of mutations in this variant, but the absolute significance is uncertain and vaccines remain important tools to protect us,” he explained.
De Oliveira said they were seeing “a very unusual constellation of mutations”.
“(There are) many mutations in the SARS-Cov-2 genome with over 30 mutations. It is very different from all earlier forms of mutation or anxiety.”
He added, “Some mutations impair transmissibility and immune evasion with well-known phenotypic effects, but many others have been rarely observed and not well characterized, so the absolute significance is still uncertain. “
“There was concern about how the mutation in the new variant might affect how well the virus is neutralised,” said Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at KRISP.
“They give us concerns that this could give the virus an increased communicability, hence the ability to spread from person to person and potentially get to other parts of the immune system and not just neutralizing antibodies, Lessels said.
Fahla said he expected a fourth wave to occur in December or January, but this new version was causing a surge in infections.
“We were very optimistic initially, even when we saw an increase in numbers in Gauteng, it could be contained because we thought they were just a bunch of delta variants. But now its newer variant. has come which has been clearly identified. It only confirms that the invisible enemy we are dealing with is very unpredictable,” admitted the minister.
“Everyone travels in and out of Gauteng (the economic hub) from all corners of South Africa, so it is a given that the positivity rate and numbers are going to start to rise in the next few days,” he stressed.
Fahla said the government and the Corona Command Council will meet over the coming weekend to consider the impact of the new version and the rise in infections.
“It is too early to predict what the line of action is going to be,” he said, when asked whether the current level one of the five-pronged lockdown strategy would be tightened.
Daily infections in the country soared to over 2,000 cases on Wednesday, up from nearly 100 reported a week ago.
South Africa has recorded nearly three million infections and nearly 9,000 deaths from complications related to COVID-19, the most in the African continent.
Health officials said vaccine hesitation and complacency regarding social distancing and wearing masks in public are one of the reasons why the country has not yet reached the level of herd immunity.